Why are kids doing homework in gas station parking lots?
COVID-19 made broadband a necessity. But millions of Americans still don’t have the reliable high-speed Internet access they need to study and work while maintaining social distance.
In West Virginia – which Broadband Search describes as “the worst place to live in America for high speed Internet access” – more than a quarter of the state’s population is “underserved with minimum service options available.” High school students go to fast food restaurants just for the wifi.
The situation is even worse on rural tribal lands, where the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) says only 47 percent of homes have access to broadband networks. Isolation has devastating ripple effects for healthcare, education and economic opportunity.
Washington Post reporter Meagan Flynn (@Meagan_Flynn) interviewed rural Virginia resident Gregory Goergen about the problem back in October. Goergen said he “has sometimes gone with his wife and children to a Sheetz [gas station] parking lot to get work done online.”
What a tragedy. And it wasn’t supposed to be this way. For nearly a quarter century, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 has required the FCC to determine “whether advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.”
But in its most recent Broadband Deployment Report, the FCC hilariously and preemptively declares that goal achieved. Only Commissioners Rosenworcel and Sparks dissented, arguing rightly that the digital divide is growing and that bad data and low standards are responsible for seemingly positive progress.
Americans are funding failure every time they pay their wireless bill. Depending on the plan, a big chunk of the bill will go to the “Universal Service Fund.” According to the Tax Foundation, wireless customers pay about $5 billion a year in Universal Service Fund surcharges. The FCC collects that cash and gives much of it to telecom companies.
Those telecom companies say it costs more per household to provide broadband access in rural areas than in urban ones. They point to progress in expanding broadband access. Both are true as far as they go. But after nearly 25 years of waiting for universal service, there must be a better way.
President-Elect Joe Biden has promised to “build back better” – including building “infrastructure, like universal broadband, that unleashes innovation and shared economic progress and educational opportunity to every community.” There is support for solutions across the political spectrum in Washington – including from Senators Durbin and Sinema and Representatives Danny Davis, Abigail Spanberger and Rob Wittman.
Where there’s good infrastructure and families can’t afford to connect, targeted subsidies and tax breaks may by the answer. In the many places where infrastructure and competition are lacking, non-profits can build and own fiber optic cables and lease access.
Whatever the barrier, effective and durable solutions will require strong partnerships between local, state and federal governments, non-profits and private sector companies. Groups like New York’s Southern Tier Alliance and San Antonio’s Digital Inclusion Alliance are already pointing the way to progress.
If your organization is fed up and looking for answers, give Ceartas Advisors a call. We worked on the Telecommunications Act and share your vision for universal broadband access. Design progress at ceartas.org.